Wheelchair basketball a slam dunk for kids with disabilities

December 5, 2017  //  FOUND IN: News,

A crucial turning point for Daniel Ellman was the day his wheelchair turned into a tool to play one of his favorite sports.

Born with spina bifida, Ellman has used a wheelchair for mobility his entire life. Growing up, the avid sports fan often was unable to join team sports with his friends. But in high school, that changed, as he was able to play a competitive sport and experience being part of a team through a wheelchair basketball program based in suburban Detroit.

Today, Ellman, 34, is back on the court — this time as a coach for C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital’s new wheelchair basketball team.

“We are giving kids an opportunity they may not have had before and what they see other kids do all the time — the experience of being part of an athletic team,” said Ellman, a Michigan Medicine Department of Communication specialist who was treated at Mott as a child. “I’m thankful to be able to give back to Mott, a place where I got such incredible care, and help give current patients the experience I had growing up. It’s a special feeling to make a difference in this way.”

This week, Ellman will lead the second in a series of free clinics to help build the new program, teaching participants skills such as picking up a ball, dribbling, passing and shooting baskets from a wheelchair. The event will take place Saturday, Dec. 9 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Ann Arbor’s Peace Lutheran Church. It’s open to children in the community ages 5 to 18 who are unable to play basketball due to physical challenges and disabilities. Children are eligible to play regardless of whether or not they use a wheelchair on an everyday basis.

Ellman hopes the kids can start playing competitive games next year.

Filling a gap

Mott recreational therapist Becky McVey said starting a wheelchair basketball team was a long-time dream among Mott physical medicine and rehabilitation therapists who noticed the need for more outside activities for their patients. Thanks to a donation covering equipment, space and other costs, Mott was finally able to make that dream a reality.

“There aren’t that many opportunities for these kids to play a sport the way their peers do,” McVey said. “We know there are huge social, emotional and physical benefits to being on an athletic team, especially for kids with disabilities. We are thrilled that we are finally able to fill this gap in the community. We hope to offer more of these opportunities that help kids and their families focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t do.”

The basketball team is part of a greater effort by Mott to provide more recreational opportunities for children with special needs. Earlier this year, Mott hosted an adaptive kayaking clinic, with plans to offer similar events for skiing and camping. Other adaptive events through the year include martial arts, bowling and tree climbing.

Wheelchair basketball is the first of the activities to offer a competitive athletic experience.

Daniel Ellman, left, leads players in a drill during the organization’s first wheelchair basketball clinic.

‘Over-the-top excited’

Ellman said the first clinic — which was held in October — was a hit among both the young participants and parents alike.

“The kids had smiles on their faces the entire time,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how much fun they have weaving in between cones and feeling an independence they never had before. When you give kids the opportunity to use their chair to play a sport and have fun, it’s eye-opening for them and also for their parents who get to interact with their kids in a different way and see their kids in a different light.”

That was the case for Dorothy Ashley as she watched her 10-year-old son Zachary dribble and shoot baskets while zipping across the basketball court in his wheelchair.

Born three months early at just over two pounds, the fourth grader developed cerebral palsy at birth, which affects muscle control and movement in his legs. Through rehab treatment at Mott, he has gone from using a walker to crutches to now being able to walk.

“We didn’t know what life was going to be like for him,” said Ashley. “For him to be able to move that chair the way he does on the court and pick up the ball, it’s just awesome. It’s amazing as a parent to see your child do something you didn’t think he could do. Being able to come out and play and be part of a basketball team means everything to us. He’s over-the-top excited.”

Ellman has seen firsthand how much difference it can make to be a part of a team.

“It’s a social outlet, an intellectual outlet and an athletic outlet,” he said. “All of that comes together to form this perfect opportunity for students with disabilities.

“I remember the huge impact wheelchair basketball had on the kids I played with in high school. They felt like they were a part of something and felt like they fit in — you can’t overstate how important that is as you’re growing up.”

The next free kids’ clinic is on Saturday, Dec. 9 from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, email Becky McVey at rmcvey@med.umich.edu.